If Putin 'Mans Up,' His Regime Will Crumble
By Paul Gregory (Hoover Institution and University of Houston)
California Senator Dianne Feinstein has demanded that Vladimir Putin “man up” and admit that pro-Russian separatists downed MH17, mistaking it for a Ukrainian transport plane. That this is true is obvious to all except Putin’s propaganda machine that is frantically churning out absurd conspiracy theories, while Putin lies low and limits himself to vague claims of Ukrainian guilt.
Feinstein may not understand that Putin’s “manning up” could spell the end of his regime and he can’t admit the truth. Instead, Putin will ramp up his appeals for peace (with the very thugs who shot down MH17, it is now clear), pledge full cooperation with international investigations, and then stonewall like crazy. Meanwhile, he will not let Ukraine go. As a Russian analyst notes Putin has “never admitted a single error” and “never made a single step backward” in his 15 year rule. His KGB training requires him to double down, fight his way out, turn up the pressure, never admit, never retreat. He will continue his support of his proxies in east Ukraine and hope that the West’s attention span will be short.
What should be the West’s response? Not President Obama’s limp demand that the Russians cooperate with the international investigation as decent human beings should in the face of tragedy. No. The West must respond with real sanctions; the U.S. should go it alone, if necessary, with broad banking and sectoral sanctions. The United States should supply real military assistance and training beyond the promised night goggles and Meals-Ready-to-Eat that have yet to be delivered. Putin’s propaganda machine already claims the U.S. is behind Ukraine’s every move. If so, let the U.S. actually do something that makes a difference! At a minimum, let the troubled NSA prove its worth by publishing a daily list of manpower and equipment crossing the Russian border into Ukraine.
Be it noted that Putin has already lost. He had already shelved his grand ambitions for a new Russian empire even before the MH17 catastrophe. With the downing of the Malaysian 777 with three hundred souls on board, Putin has now turned his once-proud Russia into an international pariah and has put his whole regime at risk. Putin has no hope of convincing the outside world of his propaganda fancies – that Ukraine was trying to shoot down his plane, or Ukraine somehow lured MH17 to its fateful destiny.
To keep his regime intact, he cannot afford to lose the average Russian, who gets his or her news from Putin-controlled TV. That will be his challenge. If he fails, he is in the deepest doo-doo. Russians do not want their singers and sports stars booed abroad. They do not want to be stared at standing in line at world airports. Putin gave them a chance to be proud. Now he has taken that away.
Images – police unleashing attack dogs on black segregation protesters in Birmingham, the young Vietnamese girl burned naked by napalm — can change history. Putin must somehow neutralize the outrage of images of burly, drunken, masked thugs, menacing international investigators at the crash scene. Even worse, video from the crash site shows Putin’s surrogates openly hampering the investigation, while unceremoniously dumping victims’ bodies on rail cars destined for who knows where?
A cable networks, covering both the Gaza and Ukraine crises, recently showed a split screen of a ranting masked Hamas spokesman alongside a masked pro-Russian separatist. There was little difference between the two. Such images are not easily forgotten.
Words matter. Before MH17, the world press dutifully referred to the separatist fighters as “pro-Russian separatists” or “militia,” conjuring up images of the valiant colonial minutemen. Diplomats were similarly restrained in their choice of words. That has all changed. Secretary of State, John Kerry, on his round of Sunday interviews, repeatedly referred to Putin’s surrogates as “thugs, terrorists, and murderers.” Putin’s apologists in Europe and the United States have gone remarkably silent.
Any public relations firm worth its salt would advise Mr. Putin to come clean. Explain that the downing of MH17 was a tragic and regrettable mistake. Had the rebel forces known the incoming aircraft was a passenger jet, they would have held their fire. Putin should declare Russia’s deep regret that those fighting in its name made such a mistake. Russia should magnanimously apologize, even though it is not directly responsible. Putin should express his deep condolences to the victims’ families, and declare that he will compensate them generously for their loss. Moreover, to make sure such a tragedy never happens again, Putin should renew his pledge that Russia will fully support a professional international investigation.
Putin cannot take this public relations advice. He cannot support an admission that shreds his public statements and contradicts his own propaganda. His public stance has been that Russia has nothing to do with this conflict. His spokespersons have denied that Russia is sponsoring the pro-Russian separatists with mercenaries and heavy equipment, including tanks and missile systems.
Consider how cooperation with an international investigation would discredit Putin’s regime: Investigators would want to inspect the BUK SAM system that brought down MH17. Where is it? A “cooperative” Putin would have to explain why it was whisked across the Russian border in the early morning after the catastrophe. Investigators would want to talk to both the “Cossacks manning the at the Chernukhino checkpoint” and the Russian intelligence agents Bezler (or “Bes,” the Demon) who immediately reported the downing to superiors in the Russian military intelligence, or GRU. They would want to question Colonel Igor Strelkov (true name Girkin), also late of Russian intelligence, who reported the downing of an aircraft on his social media site before scrubbing it. The investigators would be curious about the intercepted phone calls among separatists and Russian intelligence about hiding the black boxes and destroying evidence. Investigators would want to get into the nitty gritty of how these separatists came into east Ukraine, who paid them, and to whom they reported.
Got the idea of why Putin cannot “man up?” As the Kremlin stonewalls, victims’ families become more irate – as bodies lie in open fields rotting. The Dutch government becomes more agitated, and even the German and Italian Putin apologists, despite their massive business interests in Russia, become silent. Who knows: Even former chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, may be shamed into resigning his chairmanship of the Russian Northsream gas pipeline. AIDs researchers laud the prominent Dutch researchers whose life works were cut short by the pro-Russian thugs, as world news anchors mourn the loss of scientists who have made life better for all.
Most serious would be that cooperation with an international investigation would mean coming clean with the Russian people. They would have to learn that pro-Russian separatists mistakenly shot down MH17. Although Russia would not be directly to blame, Russians can put two and two together. Well, if the Putin regime lied to us on this one, how about the glorious reunification of Crimea with the motherland welcomed by all of Crimea? Was the annexation vote legitimate? How about Georgia in 2008? Were the Georgian forces really foolish enough to attack a vastly superior Russian force? And while we are at it, how about Chechnya? What is really going on there? Why were reporters investigating the truth of Chechnya murdered and by whom?
And what happens after the crash investigation? Will not the international criminal court in Den Haag indict those behind the crash disaster? Their names, addresses, and telephone numbers are known thanks to released Ukrainian intelligence intercepts? At a minimum “Demon” and Colonel Strelkov must be indicted. What will they say if they testify? Whom will they implicate? Putin could not allow this to happen. They would have to disappear, either physically or in hiding in eastern Siberia. Putin cannot grant them parliamentary immunity as he did the polonium assassin who took out a Putin enemy in London.
In American politics, they say that the cover up is always worse than the crime. Come clean and you will be just fine. Putin’s is a case of a criminal regime where the crime is so bad that the costs of cover up pale by comparison. Putin can only hope that the world will be distracted by another outrage, that he can stone wall any investigation, and that his apologists can stave off action by international criminal tribunals. If he fails, he is in deep trouble. It is up to his inner circle and the Russian people to figure out how to make sure he leaves the scene. After all, Vova has outstayed his welcome.
Paul Gregory serves on the International Academic Advisory Board of the Kiev School of Economics. His views do not represent those of the school. His latest book is Women of the Gulag: Portraits of Five Remarkable Lives. Repost from his blog.